A fitting site to honour the struggle for human rights in Canada
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, December 20, 2003

At the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, just where the Canadian Shield gives way to the Prairies, you will also find The Forks National Historic Site. Here, centuries ago, in what is now the city of Winnipeg, tribal chieftains pow-wowed and achieved an enduring peace. Later, a few blocks away, Nellie McClung conducted her Mock Parliament and across the river, in St. Boniface, Louis Riel was born and buried. Down the street is where General Strike demonstrators marched in 1919. Adjacent to The Forks, on 17 acres of prime, downtown real estate, the latest contribution of the Jewish people to Canada is being built: The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, scheduled to open in 2007.

This week, Gail Asper announced the 30 winners of round one of the architectural contest that will ultimately produce a design for the facility. Why here? “The museum should be relevant to the site,” says the only daughter of the late Izzy Asper and manager of the Asper Foundation. Indeed, and like its location, the new Human Rights Museum will provide a connection that spans time and geography.

If the site is relevant, so too is the timing of this announcement. Made on the eve of Hanukkah, the Canadian Jewish experience and the Asper dream of promoting human rights is one step closer to fulfilment. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, began at sundown on Friday. Not so much a religious holiday as a commemorative ritual, Hanukkah celebrates Jewish victory in the first great war fought for religious freedom, in which the Jews vanquished the Syrians in the year 165 B.C.E. Victory meant they could restore the desecrated Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The celebration that followed became the first Hanukkah or “dedication.” Through eight days of celebration, a small amount of oil miraculously kept the menorah alight. Thus, the eight days following the 25th day of Isle, with a candle lit for each day, would forever joyously commemorate the event.

Having been saved from extinction, the Jews rededicated not only the Temple but their lives. Two millennia later, they maintain a tradition that has seen them through centuries of exile, pogroms, the Holocaust and efforts to secure Israel as the Jewish homeland. Hanukkah today is a symbol of what unites them to the Holy Land, wherever they are in the world.

Hanukkah may have arrived in Canada as early as 1759 when Abraham Grades and Alexander Schaumburg served respectively under Montcalm and Wolfe. What is certain is that in 1768, 15 Jews formed Canada’s first congregation in Montreal. Many followed, but it was a Jewish philanthropist and wealthy German industrialist, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, who, at the turn of the 20th century, sponsored Western Canada’s first Jewish farming settlements. Generally, Jewish immigration patterns followed those of other Eastern Europeans. The arrival of the CPR in 1885 gave Winnipeg 30 years of unequalled growth and opportunities for trade and commerce. Prodigiously long hours in the needle trade launched the Jews into the professions, the arts and business where they excelled, just as they did in Montreal and Toronto. By the Depression, Winnipeg’s north-enders were Canada’s third most populous Jewish community.

Despite new opportunities, Jews still faced anti-Semitism. To Canada’s lasting shame, prime minister Mackenzie King ignored appeals from Jewish MPs and, on the eve of the Second World War, refused acceptance of thousands of refugees.

In Winnipeg, the Jews are a prominent minority. With 15,000 residents and 70 organizations to run their schools, synagogues, seniors’ and recreational facilities, their priority now is to bring in new immigrants. “The slow processing rate means Jewish immigrants from Argentina, the former Soviet Union and now France are having to look to other countries,” says Neil Duboff, president of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg/Combined Appeals. If they come, they will find a city where their traditions are not forgotten.

Tomorrow, they would help kindle The Giant Menorah at the Asper Jewish Community Campus. There, in a city on the confluence of two rivers in an inhospitable land in the middle of winter, they would celebrate a festival that began in a hot and dusty battleground over 2,000 years ago. “Hanukkah is about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and just keeping going,” says Gail Asper. By not forgetting, the Jews have maintained the will to survive.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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